Q: I have three kids (3, 7, and 12) and each of them has about a million toys. Our house always looks like a tornado hit it and I don’t think they use most of these items anyway! The holidays are coming and I know I can’t control what other people give the kids but I don’t want to contribute to the clutter. Help!


A: I’m with you – kids’ toys take up a lot of room! It can be hard sometimes to not just think but act outside the box when it comes to the end of year holidays. We’re hit with commercials, billboards, store windows, and general holiday excitement before the last trick-or-treater comes around. Consider your family values and make some of your gift-giving congruent with them so you’re controlling the level of ‘stuff’ and sending messages with actions and not just words. Here are some gift ideas:

  • Buy experiences. Don’t worry, I’m not talking Disney World here. Gift vouchers for the movies, a favorite restaurant, bowling night, mini-golf day, trip to the zoo, whatever floats your kid’s boat. There are indoor parks – water, playground, even trampoline! – that are lifesavers for days when you really need somewhere to go and it’s not feasible to be outside. Sporting events, tickets to a play or a concert… the possibilities on this one are endless. You could make it special time with a parent or two, take along the siblings, or invite Grandma and Grandpa or a friend. This also supports the value of quality time together!
  • Classes. Buy a class or a course for something your child likes or might like. If he loves watching Jackie Chan and spends all afternoon flying around the living room furniture, he might like a martial arts class. Making cookies can be almost as fun as eating them (and in kids’ baking classes you get to do both!) and might create a kitchen helper if you don’t already have one. Then there’s art, music, dance, computer stuff, robotics… there’s no end to the classes are offered to kids these days.
  • Memberships. Is there a children’s museum near you? Those are great because they have some stuff that is always there and can become a familiar favorite, and they also have rotating exhibitions/activities to keep things from getting boring. Depending on your child’s age and personality they might be interested in museums that are not specifically for children.
  • Redecorate their bedroom. This can be extravagant and include all new furniture or be more budget friendly and include a paint job and maybe a new bedspread. Kids’ interests and preferences change as they mature and what appealed to them a few years ago (or to you when you decorated the nursery) might not appeal to them now. Let them pick the color or colors (hey, who’s it going to hurt if all four walls are different?). Maybe they want a stripe here or there. Wall decals are another great way to add personality to a room, and are removeable to boot!
  • Grow something. Okay, this one’s a thing. But it’ll be an outside thing (right away or eventually, depending on what you choose to grow). Nurturing a living thing can be a powerful experience for any age, especially if they have a little guidance along the way to make it meaningful (and hopefully successful).
  • E-books. If your kid is a reader and has a Kindle or an iPad, an e-book is a great gift that doesn’t take up space.
  • Sponsor a child in another country. Sometimes it can be hard for kids (and adults) to really develop interest and compassion for someone who seems so far from them – in terms of distance and also lifestyle and experience. Some sponsorship programs allow you to communicate with the child you sponsor so your kid can feel connected, learn about another culture, and understand what value their gift has for someone in need. Maybe sponsor a child with the same birthday as your child to make it more meaningful.
  • Subscriptions. Another thing. But these things can be thrown away or recycled after they’re read so they don’t take up room. Plus, kids love getting mail! Kids’ magazines have gotten popular and offer a variety of topics to feed your kid’s natural desire to learn.
  • Cook together. I love this one because you can tweak it just a bit to feed different interests. If your kid is into science, you could prep yourself on the scientific basics of cooking (what does baking soda do to a cookie?) and make the process a fascinating science lesson with a delicious ending. If you have a kid who likes to cook then have them help plan out the whole process (find a recipe, shop, make the dish). If your child just loves playing pretend then don a wig along with your apron and get ready to play sous chef to their Alton Brown or Julia Child.
  • Downloads. Vouchers for computer games, apps, or music.
  • Meet a hero. Your kid’s favorite TV character might already be booked but if your child desperately wants to be a firefighter or a veterinarian, you might be able to make that happen through friends or just your local friendly neighborhood citizens. Who doesn’t want to meet an adoring fan and field questions about their amazing job?
  • Photoshop a picture of them. Okay, this might be a thing because if you love how it turns out you might print it out and frame it, or have it made into a blanket or printed on metal, wood, or canvas. But just think of how your superhero-obsessed seven- year-old would love a picture of herself in full gear, saving someone in distress. Or as a rock-star killing it onstage in front of a million adoring fans. Or as a princess riding a unicorn. Whatever your kid’s current interest, having a piece of memorabilia (even if it just exists as the laptop wallpaper) can be enjoyed for a lifetime.
  • Secret Hideaway. This one is only for those lucky parents who have a bit of unused storage space and a strong motivation to win Parents of the Year. You know those half-doors that allow you to toss a bunch of junk out of sight, between walls? The doors that maybe you never open because it’s a pain to move the bed to access it and then bend down awkwardly to wrestle things in and out? Transform it into a Secret Hideaway! Insulate it, put up some drywall, paint the walls, install some carpeting, and make it homey with a beanbag, a small shelf, and a picture. Boom. Every kid’s dream.

As tempting as it may be, I’d resist making every gift a non-thing item. The younger the child is the harder it is for them to understand the concept of a promise to get something later, and it’s nice to have something new and exciting to play with right away. If you’re worried about clutter, take some time to go through all those unused things with your kids before the holidays and donate them to others in need. It’s a great practice to get into – for your living room and your kids’ development. Happy Holidays!


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